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Opinion and Insight
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Sports Go Sports! Will the IOC’s Crazy Marketing Guidelines Douse the Olympic Flame?

LBB Editorial, 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Rio 2016 is underway, but viewers are down and negative stories are all over the press. LBB’s Laura Swinton asks if draconian marketing rules are backfiring…

Sports Go Sports! Will the IOC’s Crazy Marketing Guidelines Douse the Olympic Flame?

“There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” Except if you’re the International Olympics Committee, that is. In order to protect official sponsors, the IOC is notoriously rigid about brands associating themselves in any way with the Olympics. This year, as you may have noticed, the games in Rio de Janeiro have been ushered in with a carnivale of negative press – and by gagging enthusiastic non-sponsors, the games risk being a big, ol’ Fosbury Flop.

At the last games in London, brands like Paddy Power and Nike played a clever, if dangerous, game of edging, drawing attention to the rules by obeying their letter but not the spirit. Local bakers were ordered to remove their bagel Olympic Ring displays from their window. An old Greek café 15 minutes’ walk from the Olympic Stadium – just round the corner from my old flat, no less – was forced into a hasty rebrand. Café ‘Lympic. 

It was a satirist’s dream. So, this year, in response, the IOC relaxed the ‘Rule 40’ guidelines so that brands sponsoring teams and individual athletes might be able to advertise. 

Well, I say relaxed. The modified guidelines include a blackout period for non-official sponsors around the game, a whole host of banned words and phrases and even hashtags. Businesses can’t support their local team, celebrate victories or tweet congratulations to athletes. They can’t – and this one made me chuckle – host themed events.

And I get it. I get that ambush marketing devalues official sponsorship and risks future funding. But the fastidiousness is so counter the alleged spirit of the games and fails to delineate between the global mega brands and small local businesses sharing the cheer.

It also, given negativity and anti-hype in the lead up to the games, could be ultimately self-defeating for the IOC. Reports of athletes being mugged, swimmers’ and sailors’ health concerns about Rio’s polluted waters, political instability, unpaid public sector workers and, oh, Zika virus didn’t quite amount to the upsurge of joy and love and international togetherness of ‘brand Olympics’. Plus, with the World Cup in Brazil just two years ago, the world’s sports fans are likely to be feeling a bit fatigued. It would seem to me that the IOC needs all the positive chatter it can get – from anyone, even non-sponsors. How else to drown out reports of that weird neon green water in the diving pool?

The Olympics, as an institution, has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years. From the doping scandal to the hugely controversial Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia (which saw official sponsors pressured, mocked and protested by LGBT activists). While it needs to protect existing sponsors, it also needs to protect itself. It needs to stoke positive social media buzz, not seek to douse it – or else it may find itself an even less appealing prospect for potential future sponsors.

I came across this piece on Cognoscenti by writer E.M. Swift which provides a fascinating perspective on the situation. He’s in Rio now and observes that the negativity surrounding the Games hasn’t matched up with the reality on the ground. Things, by and large, seem to be working. He’s felt safe and buoyed along by a party atmosphere. And, most interesting, the cheap seats are selling but the expensive tickets are still available which, he says, “tells me that while the locals are supporting the Games, the high-rolling corporate types are staying away.”

Also staying away, it should be noted, are advertisers and viewers. The Wall Street Journal reports that viewership of the opening ceremony was down 35 per cent compared with London 2012, that the volume of ads screened in the US during the opening ceremony was down too. The IOC needs to make sure that by dampening buzz it won’t ruin its popularity with global audiences – because that in turn hurts the official sponsors.

Swift calls it ‘an Olympic-sized public relations disaster’ – and if that’s true it would seem insane that the IOC is, through Rule 40, turning away enthusiastic cheerleaders (many of whom would, I’m sure, gladly spend millions of their own marketing budget). 

P.S. If, like me, you’re a bit sportsed-out, enjoy some Garfunkl and Oates.